Slot-Car Racing: Once-Popular Hobby Tries to Stay on the Track

Eberts, a USC graduate student, is a Times summer intern

Eight brightly colored cars swarm into Turn One sounding like a herd of electric razors gone berserk.

It is not a pretty sight. Cars careen into one another and spin off the track. One flips end over end.

Mike Brannian, 34 and runner-up to the state professional champion in 1979, predicts a rough-and-tumble race.

"Half of them won't get out of the first turn," he says warily from track-side.

It has been a long night of qualifying, punctuated by numerous crashes. The main event does not start until several minutes past midnight.

Brannian, a quality-control inspector for an aircraft company, has been optimistic. Five of the eight cars pile up in the first turn.

As he and other veterans of Circle T Raceway know, slot-car racing plays to the animal instinct in some people.

Circle T Raceway is a dingy storefront in an aging industrial neighborhood, but one gets the impression that its patrons wouldn't have it any other way.

Racing of the five-inch-long cars reached its greatest popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Only a handful of slot-car raceways still exist locally, and Circle T, which first opened its doors in 1957, is thought to be the oldest of the survivors.

Jerry and Harriet Aspenson, owners of Circle T for 13 years, have tried to keep the raceway popular by presenting it as a neighborhood, family hangout. Although adults outnumber youngsters on race nights, the clientele is younger the rest of the time, according to Harriet Aspenson.

Cursing or displays of temper by the racers result in penalties or disqualification from races.

Mike Boemker, world champion expert class slot-car racer in 1980 and a junior high school history teacher, said Circle T is also a place where young people gather that is apparently free of drugs, both because of the vigilance of the owners and because "you can't drive a slot car when you're stoned."

The North Hollywood raceway is a throwback to days when cheese made one think of Velveeta, not brie. There is not a yuppie in sight.

Stocky, casually dressed men slap one another on the back and swap technical tidbits.

They walk in carrying toolboxes, tackle boxes, cigar boxes and lunch pails decorated with well-worn stickers advertising oil additives, spark plugs and other racing products.

Fancy Electric Letters

"Bubba" is painted in fancy electric blue letters on one toolbox. Its owner, Bubba Guerrero, 29, is one of Circle T's leading racers and tinkerers.

He opens the box--chock-full of cars, spare parts and tools--to reveal some of his speed secrets.

He holds up skinny, hard rubber O-rings, which he coats with fingernail polish and uses for front tires to cut down on drag.

His car's front axle has a loose spacer that allows it to come out "like an outrigger," and floppy side weights that are supposed to help it stay glued to the track in the turns.

Oversized wires run to the motor, providing extra current. And he squirts lighter fluid--called "turbo juice" by some--into his motor to clean out carbon and wring the last scrap of power from his "womp."

Womps are the Volkswagen Beetles of slot cars: simple, reliable and rugged. Anyone can lay down $20 for a womp, $10 for a controller (a triggered device that accelerates and brakes the car), buy a little track time (about $5 a session) to practice, and be ready to make like A. J. Foyt on race night.

Slot cars are driven by electric motors along plywood tracks fitted with with metal grooves. The track, elevated to about desk level, is the power source. A descending piece of plastic channels each car in its slot while two small wire brushes under the car, called braids, drag over the metal rims of the slots, providing power to the motor.

Boemker, 37, believes that womps, the type of slot car run on Friday race nights at Circle T, have been the salvation of a sport that has a tendency to become too technical, expensive and competitive for its own good.

The cars are considered to be easy to work on and racers do so incessantly. Some womp racers rebuild their motors every several weeks and keep one or more spares for races.

Less Time and Money

Womps require far less time and money than the more sophisticated slot-car classes, the fastest of which are "open class" cars.

These super slot cars can reach 50 to 85 m.p.h. on a straightaway no longer than 80 feet, Boemker said, and can accelerate from zero to 50 in half a second. The magnets in their engines are so strong that they can attract metal debris at track-side as they zip by.

"The only time you can see them is when they turn off the power," Brannian said.

Boemker said the open-class cars have ultra-light chassis and winged aerodynamic bodies that use the air current to keep the cars pressed against the track at high speeds.

The womps running at Circle T are required to have sports-car bodies. Virtually every one is a Corvette.

Brannian likes racing womps because it is less competitive than professional slot-car racing, where high-strung drivers have been known to heave an underperforming car against a wall.

Chagrined, the mild-mannered Brannian remembers jumping up and down on a 55-gallon drum in frustration at one professional class race of the United Slot Racing Assn. after a turn marshal was slow in putting his car back on the track.

He said that some manufacturer-sponsored professional teams even have pit crews. He has seen a slot-car motor replaced--an operation that requires soldering--in less than a minute. He remembers one person who saved time by cleaning molten solder off the tip of a hot soldering iron with his fingers.

Bitten by the Bug

Brannian, who was so bitten by the slot-car bug that he once participated in a 24-hour endurance race, said he soon tired of professional-class racing because it seemed that he was spending every night working on his car.

Perhaps to remind himself that slot-car racing should be faced with less than grim determination, Brannian has painted a team name on his womp: "Lizard Brain Racing."

He began racing slot cars in 1964, quitting a few years later "when I discovered girls" and started up again in the late '70s. He calls this "the classic pattern."

There are few women slot-car racers. Boemker says the reason is that most of the adult racers played with slot cars when they were children and few girls were involved with slot cars a generation ago.

The drivers say there is a knack to racing a slot car. "When a slot car is driven well, it runs smooth. It doesn't jerk through the turns," said Paul Tracey, 26, a former modified stock-car driver.

He also said that a certain competitive instinct and coolness under pressure come to the fore, as evidenced by drivers like himself who don't qualify particularly well, but do much better during races.

Boemker said he won the world championship because of his conservative style of driving, plus an uncanny ability to make his car fishtail so that it knocked the car in the next lane off the track. Unblinking concentration is also demanded of slot-car drivers.

Boemker must rely on his driving skills tonight. The new engine he built was underpowered in qualifying. He spent the time before the race in the pits installing his backup engine and fiddling with the gear ratio.

Two Laps Behind

A quarter way through the race, his car has already fallen two laps behind.

Nevertheless, it has fared better than Brannian's Lizard Brain entry, which crashed, dislodged its motor and lost 10 laps as Brannian made makeshift repairs.

Shortly before 1 a.m., the racers streak across the finish line. Boemker has finished a quiet, steady third.

As the racers file out into the dead-of-night stillness, they talk quietly about how their cars handled in the turns or whether their motors performed up to expectation. They are, it seems, already planning how to be more competitive next week.

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